Enhancing Action Figures Has a Long and “Gripping” History
Since the earliest halcyon days of GIjOE and Action Man, fans have long dreamt of ways they could improve the world’s most popular action figure. After all, more movement plus more features equalled more fun, right? And let’s face it, as popular as they were, our first 12-inch heroes had obvious physical limitations. Their ping-pong ball hip-sockets meant that Joe couldn’t really sit down. He mostly had to slump down into his 5-star Jeep driver’s seat, unless he adopted some sort of splayed-leg yoga stance (one that hardly looked very “military”). And he couldn’t even hold his trusty .45 sidearm for more than a few minutes before it popped out of his rigid, “nose-picking” hands. How embarrassing!
It’s true that those early Joes could stand up unassisted for days (weeks even), while waiting patiently for their owners to return. But let’s face it, that was about all they could do. We eventually learned that if we left a Joe alone for too long, he might suffer the ignominy of a “shelf-dive,” plummeting helplessly to the floor below. Moving, posing and “acting out” our action figures by hand was clearly required, and voicing Joe’s innermost thoughts by shouting out phrases for him like, “Let’s take that hill!” became standard practice for children all around the world. (No complaints here.)
Indeed, playing with the first GIjOEs proved to be a physical and mental exercise, requiring the use of both hemispheres of a child’s brain; the right-side for creativity and imagination’s sake (i.e. “Let’s attack that bad guy’s fort!”), and the left-side for learning what things were and what they actually did (i.e. “Daddy, What’s a mine detector?”). As a result, by the end of the day, many children had practically written a novel’s-length adventure in their heads, all played out before them with 12″ action figures in their bedrooms, living rooms and backyards. It seemed the less a “basic” GIjOE could do for itself—the more WE had to do for it. And we LIKED it!
How Far Can 12-Inch Action Figures “Evolve?” Let’s Go to the Tape:
Over the next 50 years, Hasbro and Palitoy attempted to enhance our 1:6 scale “play experience” with a wide (and WILD) variety of inventive and creative product improvements, including such things as “lifelike hair and beards,” “eagle-eyes,” “atomic-powered” limbs, the ability to grasp and hold objects with a powerful “kung-fu grip,” and the use of hidden levers to quickly move arms with “pistol drawing action” or to execute a perfect military salute. But technological improvements made to our 12-inch heroes weren’t limited to mere physical alterations or enhanced movement. There were also advancements created—in sound.
Until 1967, the earliest GIjOEs were all silent heroes, unable to utter even a single command for themselves. It was up to WE THE PEOPLE to provide their voices, creating subtle changes in inflection or accents for each figure. As we all know, the first actual “Talking” GIjOEs utilized a very clever pull-string record technology that required no batteries. The problem was, over time, their commanding voices all became garbled and incomprehensible. If the string broke off, for all intents and purposes (for little kids, at least) that Joe was immediately deemed unrepairable and became demoted to the ranks of their older, non-talking, “silent corps.”
As the decades passed and toy technologies advanced, talking GIjOEs would return in many different variations. His original pull-string voice box was swapped out for a newer, higher-tech, battery-powered, digital version (i.e. the Navajo Code Talker, etc.), and while its sound quality was clearly superior, many fans missed pulling out that ol’ neck-string, and felt that somehow (regrettably) a bit of GIjOE’s “charm” had been lost. (It’s amazing what things people miss!)
Hasbro took 12″ GIjOEs about as far as they thought they could be taken (technologically) in 2003 when they combined the ability to control their mouths with a synchronized digital voice in the unique Voice FX Duke figure (above and right). Many believed this VFX Duke was going to be a real “game changer,” but fans were not impressed and sales were sluggish. Hasbro began to see the end of the road ahead for 12-inch Joes and further attempts to improve, upgrade or enhance the line slowed to a crawl.
But then a funny thing happened..
With necessity being the mother of invention, 12″ fans (who realized they were being left to own devices) and competitors of Hasbro (who sensed unclaimed profits) continued to evolve 1:6 scale products on their own, picking up where Hasbro left off. Over the last decade, talented 1:6 scalers around the world have stepped up and proven themselves to be a very creative and inventive lot, essentially advancing “basic” 12-inch action figures into astounding, semi (and fully) animatronic versions of their former selves. All on their own, RC fans (who were already building model airplanes, cars and tanks) have begun adding miniature robotic 1:6 scale action figures to their creations to increase their realism and “play-value.” (There’s that term again!)
Unfortunately for short-sighted Hasbro, rather than partnering with various RC firms or spearheading its own new line of 1:6 GIjOE brand RC tanks, aircraft, vehicles or robotic action figures, it has inexplicably chosen to turn its back on millions (perhaps billions!) of dollars in potential profits. Rather than leading the toy industry towards a high-tech future heralding all-new 12-inch action figure toys, it’s decided to forgo participation altogether in Joe’s latest and most miraculous incarnation—and evolution.
Watch Your Back, Hasbro.
The Future is Already Here!
While we’re sure their competitors (Dragon, Armortek, Hobbico, etc.) are enjoying all the 1:6 product profits Hasbro is leaving on the table, it remains a mystery why the creator of GIjOE wouldn’t at least pursue unclaimed licensing profits. A simple stroke of their mighty corporate pen could surely cement deals with strategically selected smaller businesses, all eager and VERY willing to spread the GIjOE 12-inch brand name into all-new markets in a whole new era. Clearly, the futures of both hobbies (1:6 scale action figures and RC models) are immensely compatible and interwoven. In fact, nowadays, the only “hands on” interaction required to make your 1964 GIjOE drive a tank, Jeep or Kubelwagen (or even row a boat!) are YOUR hands placed on the buttons and toggle switches of an RC control panel. The possibilities are limitless! To get a better idea how far this technology has advanced, take a look at the smooth realism and interaction of these two remote-controlled Dragon tank crewmen. You can almost imagine their conversation as they scan the battlefield looking for enemy forces!
While we’re all aware of the improved and enhanced 1:6 scale action figures currently being offered by companies such as Dragon, Hot Toys and Sideshow, some may not be aware of similarly wonderful creations being built by individual hobbyists around the world. So to wind up today’s article, we thought we’d introduce one such “maestro of miniaturization,” the creator of that unbelievable 1:6 scale robotic RC rowboat Action Man (shown in the video at the top of this article). His name is Jason Quayle and he generously wrote in to provide the following exclusive intel:
“Thank you for taking an interest in my Action Man model rowing boat. I am a member of the Manx Model Boat Club in the UK. I have been building and sailing model boats for the last 25 years or so. I probably have about 12 or 15 model boats which I have built and which I sail on a regular basis.
About 3 years ago, I decided to have a go at building a radio-controlled model rowing boat from scratch. I did a bit of research on the internet and found that there are quite a few people who have built similar projects – some of which are very good and some not quite so good.
Using these ideas as inspiration, I started looking around for a suitable figure to use as the rowing man and I dug out my old Action Man figures from the attic. These figures had been in my attic for many years and haven’t been used since I was a kid.
I decided to strip one down and take it apart to see how everything fit together and to see how much space there was inside (the Action Man) to fit servos and electronics (playing around with Radio Control and electronics is another one of my hobbies).”
“Having established that everything would fit, I started building the model which took about 7 or 8 months to complete. I then took a further 6 months to fit my Action Man with all the radio control equipment and electronics that would make him work.
The rowboat model is totally scratch-built, so I had no instructions and had to design everything as I went along. There was quite a bit of ‘trial and error’ required before I managed to get the rowing action to work properly and look convincing on the water.
The electronics are all based around a programmable micro controller called Picaxe. This micro controller reads inputs for the radio control receiver for speed and direction and then converts them to outputs which drive the servo motors. There are 5 servos altogether – 2 servos to drive each oar, 2 servos to raise and lower each arm, 1 servo to move his back and 1 servo to rotate his head.
The oars can be controlled independently which allow the boat to be steered just like the real thing. I’ve displayed this model at several shows and it always ‘turns heads’ with members of the public because it is such an unusual model. I hope this all makes sense.
Regards —Jason Quayle, UK”
Bottom Line: Despite Hasbro’s ongoing apathy, the 12-inch action figure is FAR from being “retired” from the toy world. Frustrated GIjOE fans continue to patronize hundreds of smaller, forward-thinking 1:6 firms that show little intention of slowing production of their own 12-inch product lines any time soon. And as a toy “platform,” the basic 1:6 scale figure’s versatility and profit potential has been well-proven over the last 50 years, creating BILLIONS of dollars of profits for its creators (the biggest of course, being Hasbro). Therefore, rather than focus on that toy giant’s somnambulistic lulls, we look forward to reporting on whatever new projects (and products) individual fans and companies are introducing to our great 1:6 hobby. After all, remember what they said about Steve Austin (the Six Million Dollar Man) after he crashed?
“We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”
—Oscar Goldman, Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI)
If you’re still a “doubting Thomas,” have a look at what Quayle’s Action Man is able to do: